The American Spirit in Literature
By Bliss Perry

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Chapter I. The Pioneers

The United States of America has been from the beginning in a perpetual change. The physical and mental restlessness of the American and the temporary nature of many of his arrangements are largely due to the experimental character of the exploration and development of this continent. The new energies released by the settlement of the colonies were indeed guided by stern determination, wise forethought, and inventive skill; but no one has ever really known the outcome of the experiment. It is a story of faith, of

   Effort, and expectation, and desire,
   And something evermore about to be.

An Alexander Hamilton may urge with passionate force the adoption of the Constitution, without any firm conviction as to its permanence. The most clear-sighted American of the Civil War period recognized this element of uncertainty in our American adventure when he declared: “We are now testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” More than fifty years have passed since that war rearmed the binding force of the Constitution and apparently sealed the perpetuity of the Union. Yet the gigantic economic and social changes now in progress are serving to show that the United States has its full share of the anxieties which beset all human institutions in this daily altering world.

“We are but strangers in an inn, but passengers in a ship,” said Roger Williams. This sense of the transiency of human effort, the perishable nature of human institutions, was quick in the consciousness of the gentleman adventurers and sober Puritan citizens who emigrated from England to the New World. It had been a familiar note in the poetry of that Elizabethan period which had followed with such breathless interest the exploration of America. It was a conception which could be shared alike by a saint like John Cotton or a soldier of fortune like John Smith. Men are tent-dwellers. Today they settle here, and tomorrow they have struck camp and are gone. We are strangers and sojourners, as all our fathers were.

This instinct of the camper has stamped itself upon American life and thought. Venturesomeness, physical and moral daring, resourcefulness in emergencies, indifference to negligible details, wastefulness of materials, boundless hope and confidence in the morrow, are characteristics of the American. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the “good American” has been he who has most resembled a good camper. He has had robust health–unless or until he has abused it,–a tolerant disposition, and an ability to apply his fingers or his brain to many unrelated and unexpected tasks. He is disposed to blaze his own trail. He has a touch of prodigality, and, withal, a knack of keeping his tent or his affairs in better order than they seem. Above all, he has been ever ready to break camp when he feels the impulse to wander. He likes to be “foot-loose.” If he does not build his roads as solidly as the Roman roads were built, nor his houses like the English houses, it is because he feels that he is here today and gone tomorrow. If he has squandered the physical resources of his neighborhood, cutting the forests recklessly, exhausting the soil, surrendering water power and minerals into a few far-clutching fingers, he has done it because he expects, like Voltaire’s Signor Pococurante, “to have a new garden tomorrow, built on a nobler plan.” When New York State grew too crowded for Cooper’s Leather-Stocking, he shouldered his pack, whistled to his dog, glanced at the sun, and struck a bee-line for the Mississippi. Nothing could be more typical of the first three hundred years of American history.

The traits of the pioneer have thus been the characteristic traits of the American in action. The memories of successive generations have tended to stress these qualities to the neglect of others. Everyone who has enjoyed the free life of the woods will confess that his own judgment upon his casual summer associates turns, quite naturally and almost exclusively, upon their characteristics as woodsmen. Out of the woods, these gentlemen may be more or less admirable divines, pedants, men of affairs; but the verdict of their companions in the forest is based chiefly upon the single question of their adaptability to the environment of the camp. Are they quick of eye and foot, skillful with rod and gun, cheerful on rainy days, ready to do a little more than their share of drudgery? If so, memory holds them.

Some such unconscious selection as this has been at work in the classification of our representative men. The building of the nation and the literary expression of its purpose and ideals are tasks which have called forth the strength of a great variety of individuals. Some of these men have proved to be peculiarly fitted for a specific service, irrespective of the question of their general intellectual powers, or their rank as judged by the standard of European performance in the same field. Thus the battle of New Orleans, in European eyes a mere bit of frontier fighting, made Andrew Jackson a “hero” as indubitably as if he had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. It gave him the Presidency.

The analogy holds in literature. Certain expressions of American sentiment or conviction have served to summarize or to clarify the spirit of the nation. The authors of these productions have frequently won the recognition and affection of their contemporaries by means of prose and verse quite unsuited to sustain the test of severe critical standards. Neither Longfellow’s “Excelsior” nor Poe’s “Bells” nor Whittier’s “Maud Muller” is among the best poems of the three writers in question, yet there was something in each of these productions which caught the fancy of a whole American generation. It expressed one phase of the national mind in a given historical period.

The historian of literature is bound to take account of this question of literary vogue, as it is highly significant of the temper of successive generations in any country. But it is of peculiar interest to the student of the literature produced in the United States. Is this literature “American,” or is it “English literature in America,” as Professor Wendell and other scholars have preferred to call it? I should be one of the last to minimize the enormous influence of England upon the mind and the writing of all the English-speaking countries of the globe. Yet it will be one of the purposes of the present book to indicate the existence here, even in colonial times, of a point of view differing from that of the mother country, and destined to differ increasingly with the lapse of time. Since the formation of our Federal Union, in particular, the books produced in the United States have tended to exhibit certain characteristics which differentiate them from the books produced in other English speaking countries. We must beware, of course, of what the late Charles Francis Adams once called the “filiopietistic” fallacy. The “American” qualities of our literature must be judged in connection with its conformity to universal standards of excellence. Tested by any universal standard, “The Scarlet Letter” is a notable romance. It has won a secure place among the literature written by men of English blood and speech. Yet to overlook the peculiarly local or provincial characteristics of this remarkable story is to miss the secret of its inspiration. It could have been written only by a New Englander, in the atmosphere of a certain epoch.

Our task, then, in this rapid review of the chief interpreters of the American spirit in literature, is a twofold one. We are primarily concerned with a procession of men, each of whom is interesting as an individual and as a writer. But we cannot watch the individuals long without perceiving the general direction of their march, the ideas that animate them, the common hopes and loyalties that make up the life of their spirit. To become aware of these general tendencies is to understand the “American” note in our national writing.

Our historians have taught us that the history of the United States is an evolution towards political unity. The separatist, particularist movements are gradually thrust to one side. In literary history, likewise, we best remember those authors who fall into line with what we now perceive to have been the course of our literary development. The erratic men and women, the “sports” of the great experiment, are ultimately neglected by the critics, unless, like the leaders of political insurrections, those writing men and women have raised a notable standard of revolt. No doubt the apparently unique literary specimens, if clearly understood in their origins and surroundings, would be found rooted in the general laws of literary evolution. But these laws are not easy to codify and we must avoid the temptation to discover, in any particular period, more of unity than there actually was. And we must always remember that there will be beautiful prose and verse unrelated to the main national tendencies save as “the literature of escape.” We owe this lesson to the genius of Edgar Allan Poe.

Let us test these principles by applying them to the earliest colonists. The first book written on the soil of what is now the United States was Captain John Smith’s “True Relation” of the planting of the Virginia colony in 1607. It was published in London in 1608. The Captain was a typical Elizabethan adventurer, with a gift, like so many of his class, for picturesque narrative. In what sense, if at all, may his writings on American topics be classified as “American” literary productions? It is clear that his experiences in the New World were only one phase of the variegated life of this English soldier of fortune. But the American imagination has persistently claimed him as representing something peculiarly ours, namely, a kind of pioneer hardihood, resourcefulness, leadership, which was essential to the exploration and conquest of the wilderness. Most of Smith’s companions were unfitted for the ordeal which he survived. They perished miserably in the “starving time.” But he was of the stuff from which triumphant immigrants have ever been made, and it is our recognition of the presence of these qualities in the Captain which makes us think of his books dealing with America as if they were “American books.” There are other narratives by colonists temporarily residing in the Virginia plantations which gratify our historical curiosity, but which we no more consider a part of American literature than the books written by Stevenson, Kipling, and Wells during their casual visits to this country. But Captain Smith’s “True Relation” impresses us, like Mark Twain’s “Roughing It,” with being somehow true to type. In each of these books the possible unveracities in detail are a confirmation of their representative American character.

In other words, we have unconsciously formulated, in the course of centuries, a general concept of “the pioneer.” Novelists, poets, and historians have elaborated this conception. Nothing is more inevitable than our reaching back to the beginning of the seventeenth century and endeavoring to select, among the thousands of Englishmen who emigrated or even thought of emigrating to this country, those who possessed the genuine heart and sinew of the permanent settler.

Oliver Cromwell, for instance, is said to have thought of emigrating hither in 1637. If he had joined his friends John Cotton and Roger Williams in New England, who can doubt that the personal characteristics of “my brave Oliver” would today be identified with the “American” qualities which we discover in 1637 on the shores of Massachusetts Bay? And what an American settler Cromwell would have made!

If we turn from physical and moral daring to the field of theological and political speculation, it is easy today to select, among the writings of the earliest colonists, certain radical utterances which seem to presage the very temper of the late eighteenth century. Pastor John Robinson’s farewell address to the Pilgrims at Leyden in 1620 contained the famous words: “The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of His holy Word. I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion. . . . Luther and Calvin were great and shining lights in their times, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God.” Now John Robinson, like Oliver Cromwell, never set foot on American soil, but he is identified, none the less, with the spirit of American liberalism in religion.

In political discussion, the early emergence of that type of independence familiar to the decade 1765-75 is equally striking. In a letter written in 1818, John Adams insisted that “the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution ought to be traced back for two hundred years, and sought in the history of the country from the first plantations in America.” “I have always laughed,” he declared in an earlier letter, “at the affectation of representing American independence as a novel idea, as a modern discovery, as a late invention. The idea of it as a possible thing, as a probable event, nay as a necessary and unavoidable measure, in case Great Britain should assume an unconstitutional authority over us, has been familiar to Americans from the first settlement of the country.”

There is, then, a predisposition, a latent or potential Americanism which existed long before the United States came into being. Now that our political unity has become a fact, the predisposition is certain to be regarded by our own and by future generations as evidence of a state of mind which made our separate national life inevitable. Yet to Thomas Hutchinson, a sound historian and honest man, the last Royal Governor of Massachusetts, a separate national life seemed in 1770 an unspeakable error and calamity.

The seventeenth-century colonists were predominantly English, in blood, in traditions, and in impulses. Whether we look at Virginia or Plymouth or at the other colonies that were planted in swift succession along the seaboard, it is clear that we are dealing primarily with men of the English race. Most of them would have declared, with as much emphasis as Francis Hopkinson a century later, “We of America are in all respects Englishmen." Professor Edward Channing thinks that it took a century of exposure to colonial conditions to force the English in America away from the traditions and ideals of those who continued to live in the old land. But the student of literature must keep constantly in mind that these English colonizers represented no single type of the national character. There were many men of many minds even within the contracted cabin of the Mayflower. The “sifted wheat” was by no means all of the same variety.

For Old England was never more torn by divergent thought and subversive act than in the period between the death of Elizabeth in 1603 and the Revolution of 1688. In this distracted time who could say what was really “English”? Was it James the First or Raleigh? Archbishop Laud or John Cotton? Charles the First or Cromwell? Charles the Second or William Penn? Was it Churchman, Presbyterian, Independent, Separatist, Quaker? One is tempted to say that the title of Ben Jonson’s comedy “Every Man in his Humour” became the standard of action for two whole generations of Englishmen, and that there is no common denominator for emigrants of such varied pattern as Smith and Sandys of Virginia, Morton of Merrymount, John Winthrop, “Sir” Christopher Gardiner and Anne Hutchinson of Boston, and Roger Williams of Providence. They seem as miscellaneous as “Kitchener’s Army.”

It is true that we can make certain distinctions. Virginia, as has often been said, was more like a continuation of English society, while New England represented a digression from English society. There were then, as now, “stand-patters” and “progressives.” It was the second class who, while retaining very conservative notions about property, developed a fearless intellectual radicalism which has written itself into the history of the United States. But to the student of early American literature all such generalizations are of limited value. He is dealing with individual men, not with “Cavalier” or “Roundhead" as such. He has learned from recent historians to distrust any such facile classification of the first colonists. He knows by this time that there were aristocrats in Massachusetts and commoners in Virginia; that the Pilgrims of Plymouth were more tolerant than the Puritans of Boston, and that Rhode Island was more tolerant than either. Yet useful as these general statements may be, the interpreter of men of letters must always go back of the racial type or the social system to the individual person. He recognizes, as a truth for him, that theory of creative evolution which holds that in the ascending progress of the race each thinking person becomes a species by himself.

While something is gained, then, by remembering that the racial instincts and traditions of the first colonists were overwhelmingly English, and that their political and ethical views were the product of a turbulent and distraught time, it is even more important to note how the physical situation of the colonists affected their intellectual and moral, as well as their political problems. Among the emigrants from England, as we have seen, there were great varieties of social status, religious opinion, individual motive. But at least they all possessed the physical courage and moral hardihood to risk the dangerous voyage, the fearful hardships, and the vast uncertainties of the new life. To go out at all, under the pressure of any motive, was to meet triumphantly a searching test. It was in truth a “sifting,” and though a few picturesque rascals had the courage to go into exile while a few saints may have been deterred, it is a truism to say that the pioneers were made up of brave men and braver women.

It cannot be asserted that their courage was the result of any single, dominating motive, equally operative in all of the colonies. Mrs. Hemans’s familiar line about seeking “freedom to worship God” was measurably true of the Pilgrims of Plymouth, about whom she was writing. But the far more important Puritan emigration to Massachusetts under Winthrop aimed not so much at “freedom” as at the establishment of a theocracy according to the Scriptures. These men straightway denied freedom of worship, not only to newcomers who sought to join them, but to those members of their own company who developed independent ways of thinking. The list of motives for emigration ran the whole gamut, from missionary fervor for converting the savages, down through a commendable desire for gain, to the perhaps no less praiseworthy wish to escape a debtor’s prison or the pillory. A few of the colonists were rich. Some were beggars or indentured servants. Most of them belonged to the middle class. John Harvard was the son of a butcher; Thomas Shepard, the son of a grocer; Roger Williams, the son of a tailor. But all three were university bred and were natural leaders of men.

Once arrived in the wilderness, the pioneer life common to all of the colonists began instantly to exert its slow, irresistible pressure upon their minds and to mould them into certain ways of thinking and feeling. Without some perception of these modes of thought and emotion a knowledge of the spirit of our literature is impossible. Take, for instance, the mere physical situation of the first colonists, encamped on the very beach of the wide ocean with an illimitable forest in their rear. Their provisions were scanty. They grew watchful of the strange soil, of the new skies, of the unknown climate. Even upon the voyage over, John Winthrop thought that “the declination of the pole star was much, even to the view, beneath that it is in England,” and that “the new moon, when it first appeared, was much smaller than at any time he had seen it in England.” Here was a man evidently using his eyes with a new interest in natural phenomena. Under these changed skies the mind began gradually to change also.

At first the colonists felt themselves an outpost of Europe, a forlorn hope of the Protestant Reformation. “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” said Winthrop. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” Their creed was Calvinism, then in its third generation of dominion and a European doctrine which was not merely theological but social and political. The emigrant Englishmen were soon to discover that it contained a doctrine of human rights based upon human needs. At the beginning of their novel experience they were doubtless unaware of any alteration in their theories. But they were facing a new situation, and that new situation became an immense factor in their unconscious growth. Their intellectual and moral problems shifted, as a boat shifts her ballast when the wind blows from a new quarter. The John Cotton preaching in a shed in the new Boston had come to “suffer a sea-change” from the John Cotton who had been rector of St. Botolph’s splendid church in Lincolnshire. The “church without a bishop” and the “state without a king” became a different church and state from the old, however loyally the ancient forms and phrases were retained.

If the political problems of equality which were latent in Calvinism now began to take on a different meaning under the democratic conditions of pioneer life, the inner, spiritual problems of that amazing creed were intensified. “Fallen” human nature remained the same, whether in the crowded cosmopolitan streets of Holland and London, or upon the desolate shores of Cape Cod. But the moral strain of the old insoluble conflict between “fixed fate” and “free will” was heightened by the physical loneliness of the colonists. Each soul must fight its own unaided, unending battle. In that moral solitude, as in the physical solitude of the settlers upon the far northwestern prairies of a later epoch, many a mind snapped. Unnatural tension was succeeded by unnatural crimes. But for the stronger intellects New England Calvinism became a potent spiritual gymnastic, where, as in the Swedish system of bodily training, one lifts imaginary and ever-increasing weights with imaginary and ever-increasing effort, flexor and extensor muscles pulling against one another, driven by the will. Calvinism bred athletes as well as maniacs.

The new situation, again, turned many of the theoretical speculations of the colonists into practical issues. Here, for example, was the Indian. Was he truly a child of God, possessing a soul, and, if so, had he partaken of the sin of Adam? These questions perplexed the saintly Eliot and the generous Roger Williams. But before many years the query as to whether a Pequot warrior had a soul became suddenly less important than the practical question as to whether the Pequot should be allowed any further chances of taking the white man’s scalp. On this last issue the colonists were unanimous in the negative.

It would be easy to multiply such instances of a gradual change of view. But beneath all the changes and all the varieties of individual behavior in the various colonies that began to dot the seaboard, certain qualities demanded by the new surroundings are felt in colonial life and in colonial writings. One of these is the instinct for order, or at least that degree of order essential to the existence of a camp. It was not in vain that John Smith sought to correct the early laxness at Jamestown by the stern edict: “He that will not work, neither shall he eat." Dutch and Quaker colonies taught the same inexorable maxim of thrift. Soon there was work enough for all, at good wages, but the lesson had been taught. It gave Franklin’s “Poor Richard" mottoes their flavor of homely, experienced truth.

Order in daily life led straight to political order, just as the equality and resourcefulness of the frontier, stimulated by isolation from Europe, led to political independence. The pioneer learned to make things for himself instead of sending to London for them, and by and by he grew as impatient of waiting for a political edict from London as he would become in waiting for a London plough. “This year,” wrote one colonist, “ye will go to complain to the Parliament, and the next year they will send to see how it is, and the third year the government is changed.” The time was coming when no more complaints would be sent.

One of the most startling instances of this colonial instinct for self-government is the case of Thomas Hooker. Trained in Emmanuel College of the old Cambridge, he arrived in the new Cambridge in 1633. He grew restless under its theocratic government, being, it was said, “a person who when he was doing his Master’s work, would put a king into his pocket.” So he led the famous migration of 1636 from Massachusetts to Hartford, and there helped to create a federation of independent towns which made their own constitution without mentioning any king, and became one of the corner-stones of American democracy. In May, 1638, Hooker declared in a sermon before the General Court “that the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance,” and “that they who have the power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power, also, to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place into which they call them.” The reason of this is: “Because the foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people." This high discourse antedates the famous pamphlets on liberty by Milton. It is a half-century earlier than Locke’s “Treatise on Government,” a century and a quarter earlier than Rousseau’s “Contrat Social,” and it precedes by one hundred and thirty-eight years the American Declaration of Independence.

But the slightest acquaintance with colonial writings will reveal the fact that such political radicalism as Thomas Hooker’s was accompanied by an equally striking conservatism in other directions. One of these conservative traits was the pioneer’s respect for property, and particularly for the land cleared by his own toil. Gladstone once spoke of possession of the soil as the most important and most operative of all social facts. Free-footed as the pioneer colonist was, he was disinclined to part with his land without a substantial price for it. The land at his disposal was practically illimitable, but he showed a very English tenacity in safeguarding his hold upon his own portion.

Very English, likewise, was his attachment to the old country as “home.” The lighter and the more serious writings of the colonists are alike in their respect for the past. In the New England settlements, although not at first in Virginia, there was respect for learning and for an educated clergy. The colonists revered the Bible. They maintained a stubborn regard for the Common Law of England. Even amid all the excitement of a successful rebellion from the mother country, this Common Law still held the Americans to the experience of the inescapable past.

Indeed, as the reader of today lifts his eyes from the pages of the books written in America during the seventeenth century, and tries to meditate upon the general difference between them and the English books written during the same period, he will be aware of the firmness with which the conservative forces held on this side of the Atlantic. It was only one hundred years from the Great Armada of 1588 to the flight of James Second, the last of the Stuart Kings. With that Revolution of 1688 the struggles characteristic of the seventeenth century in England came to an end. A new working basis is found for thought, politics, society, literature. But while those vast changes had been shaking England, two generations of American colonists had cleared their forests, fought the savages, organized their townships and their trade, put money in their purses, and lived, though as yet hardly suspecting it, a life that was beginning to differentiate them from the men of the Old World. We must now glance at the various aspects of this isolated life of theirs, as it is revealed in their books.


Chapter I. The Pioneers  •  Chapter II. The First Colonial Literature  •  Chapter III. The Third and Fourth Generation  •  Chapter IV. The Revolution  •  Chapter V. The Knickerbocker Group  •  Chapter VI. The Transcendentalists  •  Chapter VII. Romance, Poetry, and History  •  Chapter VIII. Poe and Whitman  •  Chapter IX. Union and Liberty  •  Chapter X. A New Nation  •  Bibliographical Note

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By Bliss Perry
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